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Access 9-1-1: Anytime, Anywhere, Any Device

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-06-10
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Originally Published in our May-June 2008 issue.

Since this month’s issue historically appears in conjunction with the National Emergency Number Association’s annual conference, I thought that it might be appropriate to discuss the new trademarked tagline that has become associated with NENA.  On the surface, it’s a pretty catchy tune; “Emergency Help – Anywhere, Anytime, Any Device.” And granted, it does pretty much sum up the state of our business, and where we are most likely headed.  But beyond the printed words, what does it really mean for communications managers like us?

It would seem that we have the anytime part down pretty good.  After all, we’ve been at this a while, and recognize both the need for 24/7 service, as well as how to prepare and plan for uninterrupted operations in the face of natural and manmade disasters.  As for the anywhere, I suspect that applies more to our customers.  Wherever they are we have to provide a mechanism for them to get to the advertised emergency help.  Of course, the tricky part of that codicil is to be able to find them in order to deliver that emergency help.  We now sit more than two decades down the road of wireless, and, while we’ve gotten better, we still don’t have nationwide coverage, and in many cases don’t have anything that could be labeled as pinpoint accuracy by anyone keeping a straight face. 

Of course, with future technologies in mind, the “anywhere” could also refer to the concept of the virtual call center.  Although it’s been around in the private sector for some time, having telecommunicators field 9-1-1 calls while sitting in their kitchen is a stretch for many of us.  Still and all, distributed call taking and dispatch may have some practical and economic benefits, and is something we ought to take a hard look at before dismissing.  If nothing else, it offers a new way of handling peak call periods and creating more robust redundancy.

Future technologies also bring us to what, to me, may be the most important part of the NENA trilogy; “any device.” Just exactly what does this mean? It’s a pretty broad promise, and one that is going to be tough to fulfill.  When 9-1-1 legislation was originally drafted, cell phones and Voice over Internet Protocol were not even on the horizon, so our “call us and we will come” representation sets a lofty and unlimited goal.  Our vision may be no less accurate than those who came before, and we can only hope to make educated guesses at what devices may be contained under our all inclusive category of “any.”

Current thinking often falls along the lines of access to dial tone equating to access to 9-1-1.  However, at some point, will dial tone be as antiquated a concept as a rotary dial phone?  Are the devices we are talking about independent of the public switched telephone network? We know that electric power companies can already provide communications services, as can cable companies.  The promise of any device is unconditional, and must be kept unconditionally.  While this may offend some hard liners, it is, perhaps, more reflective of the new reality.  Consumer demand for electronics and electronic communications innovation drives the market.  Since we can’t control where this road is headed, we ought to at least commit ourselves to keeping up with the front runners.

But, when all is said and done, the personal portion of this equation may be more difficult to manage than the technical.  This should be no surprise, because, frankly it always is.  As future challenges emerge, we’ll have no shortage of vendors to sell us the solutions.  Managers will be asked to assess these applications, make recommendations, and implement their choices.  However, how do we prepare our people?

If multiple devices require multiple interfaces, how to we train and set coherent policies? Isn’t part of our current problem often the complexity of the job? And what about all these photos and videos that may come along with Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1)? Will we have an increase in stress because telecommunicators may be viewing a high definition graphic of a gory scene in addition to hearing the screams? On the other hand, how much contact will actually be human? Telematics and Automatic Crash Notification may deliver data only.  What will this do to our call volume? While seemingly reliable, will these technologies become the automatic burglar and fire alarms of the future as they become more commonplace? Will false activations outnumber actual accidents?

How will handling and storing of all this disparate call information impact our processing time? Just as computers have failed to deliver a paperless society, it is doubtful that NG9-1-1 will result in less work.  While I have personal opinions on many of these matters, they are just that.  However, after more than 35 years in this business, there is some things of which I am sure. 

Despite being only three letters long, the word “any” is one of the most powerful in the English language.  It is infinite and all encompassing.  When we sign up to a task that is triply defined using this word, our responsibilities are endless.  And, in the long run, whether we publicly commit to this undertaking or not, we will still be expected to fulfill these promises, in any event, anyhow, anyway.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states.  A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.



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Posted by: will
Date: 2012-08-13 16:41:43
Subject: Security concerns re: NG911

My major concern with migrating emergency communications to the internet is how security will be handled. I see no other way to deal with security other than the type of end-to-end voip encryption currently available via the zrtp protocol developed by the Zfone Project. Voip is inherently less secure than the traditional public telephone network, due to the differences in routing protocols between the two systems. It's nearly impossible to wiretap a traditional phone line unless you're a government agent. However, since voip communications are carried within IP packets via the internet, anyone who knows how to use a packet sniffer can eavesdrop on voip conversations. In emergency situations, the inherently insecure nature of unencrypted voip communication with first responders could allow criminal elements to use information gathered from eavesdropping on 911 calls to obstruct justice.

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